Mental Health

Since childhood, most children have heard from their parents that sports and physical exercise are extremely important for them because they make their bodies healthy and become more susceptible to practicing sports when older. Although this is accurate, the practice of physical exercise is much more than just about one's physical health, it is an essential factor for a person to have a positive well being and good emotional health, and it is also responsible for treating depression and anxiety, amongst other mental disorders. 

 

The practice of physical exercises demonstrates impactful changes on the well being of all age groups, acting differently in each category. ​According to NCBI, physical exercise is shown in children to have a connection with high levels of self-efficacy and task goal orientation, and it also increases their competence. In youth and adulthood, most studies demonstrated that physical exercise is related to better health outcomes, such as better mood and self-concept. In the aging population, PE (physical exercise) is responsible for helping elders in maintaining independence, social relations, and mental health. Overall, the PE benefits in well being are the feelings of control, self-efficacy, competence, improved self-esteem, positive social interactions and opportunities for fun and enjoyment. Besides that, PE can also impacts personal identity and the development of Self, which is correlated with hardiness, personality style and the ability of a person to deal with stressful situations. 

Some of the biggest obstacles of positive well being are mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and stress. These disorders are today treated by mental health doctors, such as psychiatrists, that prescribe a series of medicines to help the individual to feel better through the increase of hormones like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, which are responsible for making the person feel better about himself.

These hormones have essential functions on one's well being:

  • Dopamine: The pleasure or reward neurotransmitter. This hormone, released when eating food, having sex, and also exercising is responsible for boosting motivation, mood, and attention, helping the regulation of behavior, movement, learning, and emotional responses.

  • Endorphins: Known to be the hormone responsible for the runner's high, this neurotransmitter is produced by the brain's hypothalamus and pituitary gland when the body goes under stress or painful experiences. To inhibit these pain signals, the endorphins create an energized euphoric feeling and general well being. The main way of releasing endorphins is through aerobic exercises, such as running, hiking, swimming, and spinning.

  • Serotonin: Known as the happy chemical because of its contribution to one's well being and happiness, this hormone helps the body to regulate mood, appetite, blood clotting, sleep time, and the body's circadian rhythm. Since this is known as the happy hormone, it is more than expected that low levels of this neurotransmitter can have serious impacts on well being, helping to prevent depression and anxiety. The hormone is naturally produced by the body, but it can be boosted through the practice of vigorous physical exercise and exposure to sunlight.

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According to the World Health Organization's write-up labeled "Depression", there are more than 264 million people that suffer from depression, and it has become the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada, ahead of any cancer, coronary heart disease, and AIDS. Another index that is getting higher throughout the years is obesity, that according to the same source, is shown to have tripled since 1975.  Today more than 650 million people are obese. So, what does obesity have to do with depression, and how does that link to physical exercises?  

As reported by Barry and Petry in Psychiatric Times, people with elevated BMI (body mass index) have increased odds on having mental disorder symptoms (1.19% more likely).  Obese individuals are 1.5 times more likely to suffer from mental disorders than normal-weighted individuals while extremely obese people are found to be twice as likely to suffer from it. On average, an adult should have at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, a number that obese people do not usually achieve. This amount of exercise, besides helping people develop a healthy physique, it is responsible for boosting a person's hormone production, making the body release chemicals responsible for one's well being. As a result of that, people that keep a good and balanced routine of activity are shown to be more emotionally healthy than people that do not. In conclusion, because of the lack of a solid exercise routine, overweight people do not have the same production of the well being hormones as people who exercise often. Meanwhile, people with a good exercise routine are helping to prevent themselves from having mental disorder issues. 

 

Aside from treating depression, exercise has a major role in treating anxiety and also reducing stress. As described by John Ratey in his book Spark, "As our muscles begin working, the body breaks down fat molecules to fuel them, liberating fatty acids in the bloodstream. These free fatty acids compete with tryptophan, one of the eight essential amino acids, for slots on transport proteins, increasing its concentration in the bloodstream. The tryptophan pushes through the blood-brain barrier to equalize its levels, and once inside, it’s immediately put to use as the building block for our old friend serotonin. In addition to the boost from tryptophan, the higher brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels that come along with exercise also ramp up levels of serotonin, which calms us down and enhances our sense of safety" (92). Through this process, exercise acts as a circuit breaker that interrupts the negative cycle that happens between the body and brain that heightens anxiety, calming the feeling of fear caused by this process and creating the notion of safety. Because of the sudden change from fear to safety, the body reroutes its fear circuits, learning that by confronting the situation (by doing exercises), one can do something to remove himself from this anxiety situation, creating a self tautology to escape from anxiety on one's own. 

Sources:

- “Depression.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression. 

- Barry, Danielle, and Nancy M. Petry. “Obesity and Psychiatric Disorders.” Psychiatric Times, 5 Dec. 2009, www.psychiatrictimes.com/anxiety/obesity-and-psychiatric-disorders.

- “Obesity and Overweight.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight. 

- Berry, Jennifer. “Neurotransmitters: What They Are, Functions, and Psychology.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 11 Oct. 2019, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326649.php.

- Mandolesi, Laura, et al. “Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits.” Frontiers in Psychology, Frontiers Media S.A., 27 Apr. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5934999/.

- Ratey, John J., and Eric Hagerman. Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little, Brown, 2013.

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